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Oscar Changes: Winners and Losers

by Anne Thompson
June 24, 2009 6:25 AM
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Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Sid Ganis has another surprise up his sleeve: I hear he's going to promise that the Oscar show to be broadcast on ABC will not be longer this year, even with ten best picture nominations instead of five. This could mean that tech categories will get short shrift.

Hollywood was rocked Wednesday by the surprise news that the Academy, which rewards excellence in moviemaking, is adding five slots to the best picture Oscar category. Gob-smacked Sidney Kimmel Entertainment exec Bingham Ray spoke for many fellow Academy members when he said, "A move this big, I would have liked to have been consulted, or at least given a heads up. They should have put this to a vote."

For the Academy to cite this move as harkening back to 1939, when ten films were nominated, is absurd. That was the best year ever during the Golden Age of Hollywood, when the studios routinely churned out a hundred quality films a year aimed at grown-ups, movies that no self-respecting teen-driven studio head would dream of making today. "It will open it up to a wider spectrum, more genres," Ganis told NPR, like action films, comedies, documentaries, and foreign films. He went on to admit that the decision by the Academy board of governors was largely a business move.

Tensions had been growing between the Academy and broadcast network ABC, which has suffered ratings losses in recent years when Academy voters have selected high-end fare, from best picture winners Crash and No Country for Old Men to small-scale nominees Milk and Frost/Nixon. The Academy is placating ABC with the promise that ten slots will bring more popular films like The Dark Knight and Wall-E into the Oscar field.

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What will this change mean to the studios, distributors, Oscar campaigners and filmmakers? Here are the winners and losers in this new scenario.

Oddly, the studios are not jumping up and down over this, because the floodgates are now open for filmmakers harboring Oscar hopes. (Christopher Nolan was NOT pleased when The Dark Knight failed to score a best picture slot last year.) And that means more movies to promote for a longer period of time. The studios are trying to cut their ad budgets, not expand them. They were planning to cut back on print ads after seeing how little they moved the needle on such films as Revolutionary Road, Frost/Nixon and Milk. So the NYT, LAT and trades are relieved about this news. For them, the more contenders the better. Oscar bloggers will likely see a boost in Oscar ads too. "Each studio can't mount a campaign for three, four or five movies," insist one marketing studio exec. "They're not doing trade ads for just anybody. They'll have to choose which films they'll get behind."

Thus Disney will certainly promote Pixar's well-reviewed Up, which opened Cannes, for best-picture consideration, which now has a real shot. And Paramount will be likely to throw ad dollars at J.J. Abrams' Star Trek. Studios will tend to favor in-house power players and movie stars over smaller titles.

The change will also make it easier--if expensive--for distribs to bring back movies released earlier in the year for Oscar consideration, from Michael Mann's elegant period epic Public Enemies to Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq movie The Hurt Locker. The studios will now recalibrate theatrical and DVD release strategies with Oscar in mind in order to efficiently target marketing dollars to boost films in theaters or in advance of a DVD launch.

Some feel that the Hollywood economy needs this boost, that spending on ten Oscar nominees will drive up boxoffice and DVD value. But should that be the Academy's job? "They're whoring out the Oscars," says one indie producer. "The Golden Globes have more integrity than the Oscars. It's dilutes the pure value attached to best picture."

"This will bring an exciting new dynamic to the show and give the entire awards season new energy," says Oscar campaigner Ronni Chasen. "It will be good for business and provide an opportunity for five more movies to gain added visibility and exposure that would be good for box office. This should be a win-win for everyone." The LAT's Patrick Goldstein, who has been lobbying the Academy in his column for Oscar reform, agrees.

Coming out ahead are specialty distribs such as Sony Pictures Classics, which could have used extra Oscar juice for smaller quality films such as last year's Rachel Getting Married, or Frozen River. But SPC's Tom Bernard worries about Oscar voters being able to see all the films, even with eight extra days in the schedule this year. The nominations will be announced February 2 and ABC will broadcast the Oscars on March 7. Bernard hopes the Academy will make some moves to increase the number of member screenings. Distribs will send out more DVDs, but what's going to make a given voter watch them all? "It's more inclusive and that's a good thing," says Bernard. "But it's hard getting the membership to watch all the films NOW. It's difficult to get them to see five foreign language films."

The worst thing about all this is the dilution of the exclusive, special nature of the top five. What if the ten selections aren't top notch? To put it bluntly, there isn't an overabundance of quality films anymore. What if they aren't all well-reviewed? The movies at the bottom of the best picture ten may reflect mere hundreds of votes. "Everyone is a contender now," says one studio publicist. "It's not the rarified five anymore. It makes it less elite."

Said one miserable Oscar campaigner: "People who thought they had no shot? Today they think they do."


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